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Media Circus


By Michael Anft | Posted 9/25/2002

In the past year as your humble ringmaster, I've angered Geraldo Rivera, been told off by the editor of The Sun, and disappointed my City Paper bosses with my criticism of this publication on its 25th anniversary--all, I believe, for the right reasons. My work is done here. I've decided to end my 20-year on-and-off association with City Paper and settle into a well-deserved retirement, during which I'll be content to flip through heretofore-unread copies of The New Yorker and Harper's, while ignoring the mostly uninspired local product we unfortunate viewers/readers/listeners have spewed at us.

In the meantime, it seems fitting to recount what little I've learned during my tenure as a media critic. In brief: The Federal Communications Commission is evil, the news industry is being overrun by aliens, and the print medium is being short circuited by corporate geeks, lawyers, and journalism schools. To take each semi-outrageous claim one at a time:

» This month, the FCC, headed by Michael "Son of Colin" Powell, will likely decide whether to relax a half-dozen or so rules on how big to let radio and television corporations get. As I've documented ad nauseam in this space, such "relaxation" of regulations would be great news for Rupert Murdoch, the flailing AOL Time Warner, and the Tribune Co. (which, among other holdings, owns The Sun and several TV stations), among a handful of lesser others (including Times-Shamrock, owners of City Paper). Each could own more companies in other media, expand its realm in its current medium, and generally call the shots as to what becomes news and what doesn't for the entire country. Obviously, this doesn't serve dissenting voices--or democracy--very well.

Under Powell, the FCC has stopped being a regulatory agency and become a full-fledged corporate cheerleader. What does that mean? Likely, even fewer bandwidths or publishing opportunities for small companies, local public-service stations, and the like. If you think radio is a wasteland now, wait until Clear Channel and Infinity buy virtually every station.

» Although the image of extraterrestrials taking over newsrooms might make for good National Enquirer copy, that's not quite what I mean. In the past two decades, news operations have become revolving doors for rootless careerists who are encouraged to pick up stakes every three years or so. This explains why the overpaid Ken-and-Barbie dolls of TV news may refer to "Park Street" or "Gay Street in West Baltimore." They just got here, so how could they know they're wrong?

The "journomads" carpetbag at local papers, too. Editors like the fact that they're easier to control. One of the reasons why USA Today is so gosh-awfully successful is that local papers don't offer much more in the way of provincial news or color any more than McPaper does. Why not go for the splashy graphs and the "national community" stories?

» Corporations seeking double-digit annual profit margins like to play things safe. No lawsuits, which means fewer investigative pieces. More shared copy, which means fewer local voices. And journalism schools--a scary concept to begin with--do their best to churn out people who understand this, as well as the ethical platitudes that are mere abstractions in the world of news-gathering. You'll find a lot of future journomads in "j-school," which is to freshly written reporting what the Iowa Writers' Workshop is to cutting-edge fiction. But don't bother looking for someone with the clear-minded passion of H.L. Mencken or the zeal of Andrew Kopkind. They won't be there.

Having trashed the local media scene writ large, I have to admit that I've enjoyed certain local voices in the past year and beyond. The tough reporting of WBFF (channel 45) crime-and-justice guy Jon Leiberman and the cool detective work of Jayne Miller at WBAL (channel 11) still rule the TV airwaves. Marc Steiner's often daring public-affairs program on WYPR (88.1 FM) fills a niche no one else has the guts to take on. At The Sun, I've especially appreciated the war coverage and feature writing of Dan Fesperman, the sports-business reporting of Jon Morgan, and the terrific overview pieces by Michael Hill in the Sunday Perspective section. Keith Mills' big-hearted, unabashedly provincial weekend sports coverage on WMAR (channel 2) stands out among the jock crowd, just as J.K. O'Neill's weekly What's Up With That? column in The Dundalk Eagle reminds me that Baltimore and its environs are at least as fascinating as any other place--probably even more so. The smart-assed, hilarious man-about-town musings of Jim Burger (in both The Messenger and Style magazine) prove that generally staid publications are capable of surprises.

I've also appreciated all my sources--those whom I met in darkened parking garages and those who slipped microfilm under my door. And just so everyone knows who you are, here are your names: just kidding. One last joke to tide you over to the next guy.Media Critic, Heal ThyselfWhat's a drippy farewell column without a couple of corrections? In my last column (Sept. 4), I repeated information from sources that proved to be wrong. Sun cop reporter Del Quentin Wilber did indeed file a "blanket FOIA"--a request for all of the information requests filed by competing reporters and others--with the Maryland State Police. But he did it last year, not in 2002. And I asserted that The Sun and The Washington Post were smothering one another with blanket FOIAs directed at the governor's crime office. Post reporter Craig Whitlock says, however, that his paper has refrained from answering The Sun's FOIA frenzy. Media Circus regrets the errors.

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